Jamie Lee Curtis Gets Real
The first thing I notice is her hair. When she greets me at the door of her Santa Monica home one overcast afternoon, Jamie Lee Curtis’s hair is cropped, as it has been for as long as anyone can remember. But instead of the golden brown she maintained for years with the help of a colorist, it is now mostly silver and 100 percent chemical-free. At 47, this actress turned children’s book author makes no secret of her desire to get real. Her hair is only the latest sign of how well she’s succeeding.
Four years ago, Curtis and I collaborated on a piece for More that set off a tidal wave of publicity. The article was titled "True Thighs" — a twist on the title of Curtis’s 1994 movie True Lies — and in it, Curtis did what actresses almost never do: She admitted her flaws. In the accompanying photographs, the woman who once starred as an aerobics instructor with a Barbie doll silhouette in a film titled Perfect, revealed she was anything but. Wearing unflattering spandex underwear and not a dab of makeup, Curtis looked straight into the camera, a big smile on her face, her midriff pooching slightly. Tired of the hype, she said, she wanted to reveal herself, thighs and all.
The article was pegged to the publication of her fifth book for children, I’m Gonna Like Me: Letting Off a Little Self-Esteem, a funny, wise primer on the importance of being your own biggest fan. But Curtis’s decision to expose herself was more than a publicity stunt. It was an earnest attempt to remove herself from the swirl of celebrity that makes so many women — including Curtis — feel they can’t measure up.
This time when we sit down in the dining room of the home she shares with her husband, actor-director Christopher Guest, and their 10-year-old son, Tommy (their older daughter, Annie, is away at college), the occasion is Curtis’s seventh book, Is There Really a Human Race?, which hits stores this month. Before we get started, I have something for her: a copy of a pricey college textbook, The Meanings of Dress, in which the 2002 More article is reprinted. I assume she has seen the book before, but flipping to the page that shows the photos of her, she’s clearly stunned. I realize that for all the accolades she has won as an actress and as a best-selling author, Curtis is still surprised to discover that she has been taken seriously.
The Impact of Curtis in Spandex
Curtis: Wow, Amy! Wow! Well, that makes me feel like this may have some life. This has some legs.
Wallace: It does indeed. It has some thighs.
Curtis: It has some big old chunk thighs.
Wallace: So, the last time we met, you decided to take on the oppression of body image and, through your own example, debunk it. The reaction was astounding. Tell me about the aftermath for you.
Curtis: The piece was a way of making amends, of saying, "I’m sorry I made you feel less than. Because I am just like you." That was my goal. I knew that on some level, women who had struggled with that would appreciate it. I did not anticipate for a second the bigger reaction to it and the continuing reaction to it. It turns out it will probably be the single biggest contribution I may ever make as a public figure.
Wallace: Do people still mention it to you?
Curtis: Probably once a week. Just today, in the market, somebody came up and said it was important. Because I think it gave them a bit of permission to be who they are.
By the way, I do Pilates, I do yoga, I exercise, I eat very carefully. I’m not saying obesity or lack of exercise is fine. I’m saying, "This is what I look like and I do that." I’ve had to accept that part of me. I have a name for my middle here. [Pats her tummy] Her name is Midge. When I do Pilates, we talk about Midge. "Pull in Midge."
Some critics misunderstood the More article a little bit. They thought of it as being psychobabble — analysis-driven action. But it had nothing to do with some need on my part to expose. That photo shoot was tied to my book about self-esteem. How can I sell a book about self-esteem if I’m not willing to acknowledge that I too have self-esteem issues?
Curtis on Parenthood & Her Career
Wallace: Your new book with illustrator Laura Cornell is about competition. Are you competitive?
Curtis: I am really competitive. But this book was born because my little boy, Tommy, came home from school one day with tears in his eyes, looked up at me and said, "Is there really a human race?" The subtext of what he was saying was, "Why didn’t you tell me I’m just here to perform?"
Tommy is a child with a profound learning difference. He’s in a special school for kids who all learn differently. And I think this question was prescient of him. I think it was clear that he couldn’t do the monkey dance like everybody else, and he was starting to feel, "What’s wrong with me?" He’d gotten a message that it was a race, and he was losing. I said, "It’s not a race, Tommy. You misunderstood, Sweetheart. It’s not a race. That’s just an expression people use."
I’m not saying there can’t be healthy competition. But the obsession with competition is what this book is about.
Wallace: One of my favorite lines in the book is "Sometimes it’s better not to go fast. There are wonderful sights to be seen when you’re last."
Curtis: Right. Who ever talks about being at the end of the line? It’s always about being up at the front. How many times do you see people with those freaking foam fingers that say, "We’re #1!"?
All of us are on a hamster wheel. There’s no stopping and taking a deep breath and going, "Why am I here?" If anybody runs as fast as they can to keep that hamster wheel going, it’s me. But ultimately, all that hamster running left me empty.
Wallace: Are you finished with acting?
Curtis: The great majority of my time now is spent advocating for my son. Even with his wonderful specialized school, he does need extra help, and it’s my job to help him get it. This is a time in my life to focus almost exclusively on Tom. He deserves it. I deserve it. Our family deserves it. Chris told me someone came up to him the other day and said, "Hey, I’ve got a script for Jamie. Can I send it to her?" And he said, "Where is it being shot?" They said, "Canada, for two months, this summer, and she’s in every scene." Chris said, "If you can shrink it to two days in Santa Monica, she might take a look at it." And that’s really where I’m at. Up the street from our house last night, they were shooting a movie. And the trees were illuminated with bright light. And I looked at Chris and I said, "I’m so happy that I’m not the one in that trailer." I know it’s fun for some people. And I hear some actors in their seventies say that they still love to go to the set. But I don’t love it anymore. I just don’t. I like it. I’m happy to do it, if it works out. But I am so protective of my time.
Now, a lot of women are going to read that and say, "Oh, sure. Thanks a lot for making me feel that because I’m working, I’m somehow not doing right by my children." I know that I am lucky. My point is, if you can afford to, you have to look at how much time you’re spending. There is nothing you will regret more in your life — nothing — than not being present for your children.
Curtis on Creating a Life for Herself
Wallace: You made a point, the last time we talked, of noting that this house was bought with money you and Chris earned, not inherited family money. Why is it so important to you that people know that?
Curtis: I wish it weren’t as important, because there are a lot of more important things to talk about, quite frankly. I gave a speech recently and spoke right after Victoria Rowell. She’s an actress and an author, and she was in foster care for 18 years. What she had to say was really moving. At a turning point in her life, someone told her that she didn’t have to be a product of her fate, that she could be a product of her actions. And when I got up to talk, I was very moved. Because I’ve spent a lot of my life being a product of fate, which is, you know, fighting against what people assumed of me. The silver-spoon assumption about me was something I needed to defy. It’s such an old tape that it’s an eight-track, but it still works: I had nothing but privilege all my life because I am the daughter of the movie stars Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis. So ultimately, I still have to say, I’ve never received a penny from my family. And I mean a penny.
People often feel that because my family is a particular kind of family, I have to be a particular kind of person. But off that calcified lump of a family, it’s very hard to create an individual life. The essential you may be very different from that calcified lump that you’re attached to. That’s where my hope lies.
A friend of mine gave me a book of meditations. I’m not a big meditator. I’d like to be — it’s a goal. So far, I’m resisting. But I picked up this book, and it said that at the time of death, people who live mindfully ask themselves just two questions. Period. Now, every single day, I ask myself the questions: Did I learn to live wisely? Did I love well?
Curtis on Her Parents’ Influence
Wallace: Your mother died in 2004. What changes has that brought for you?
Curtis: It’s been two years now since she died. I’ve been able to let her go. And because of that, I’ve been able to take care of her husband, Bob, in a way that would have been hard for her to do, and I’ve made changes in her house that she might not have been comfortable making. But I also appreciate my mother deeply for what she was able to do, given her circumstances. I have been able to honor her more.
I need to be careful here. My father had nothing to do with my raising. That isn’t a statement of anger. I have a perfectly lovely relationship with him. But my mother and my step-father raised me and my sister, Kelly. My mother instilled very good qualities in both of us, and I give her all the credit for it, although we may not have had this deeply emotional bond that you would like to have with your mother.
So I clearly have sought that bond from other people. That’s where my girlfriends have come in. I have learned to be the woman I am today because of my girlfriends. My mother taught me a business ethic, a professional ethic; she taught me a basic kindness and gave me a very grounded sense. But it was my women friends who taught me how to be a woman. They have really shown me the way that you would hope a mother would.
Wallace: When you adopted your two kids, did you feel as if you had to teach yourself how to parent?
Curtis: Yes. As my friend Naomi Foner [a screenwriter and mother of actors Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal] says, "Raising a child is the only relationship you have where if you do it right, it will end in separation." The goal is that they have their own mind. Not your mind. Not your parents’ minds. Their own mind. That they go to a school that they want to go to, not that you went to. That they are doing jobs that they are interested in, not because that’s what my mom or dad did.
Curtis on Friendships & Marriage
Wallace: You’ve called Foner and your other girlfriends your Estrogen Posse.
Curtis: Yes. My friends have basically fertilized me. In every way. And out of all of that, I’ve come to exist as an individual flower of my own creation. I always thought I was some sort of cutting from each of those plants. But I have truly come into my own. For better or worse, by the way.
For example, I am a decent cook now. My mother, let’s just say, was very thin and leave it at that. Food was not something that was a pleasure in life and therefore not something that was a pleasure in our growing up. So I’ve had to learn to enjoy food and to cook.
Wallace: You’ve been married for almost 22 years. How have you learned to make that work?
Curtis: Marriage is an evolution, and you only hope that you evolve with it — if not intertwined, then on parallel paths. When we married, we were both actors. Since then, Chris has become a director who rarely acts in other people’s movies — although he was wonderful in Mrs. Henderson Presents. And I’ve done commercial endorsements, written seven books for children, become a recovering alcoholic publicly, and we’ve had two children. Both of us have lost parents — he lost his father right when Tommy was born. And all of that yields different people at different times. If you’re lucky.
Wallace: Do you think one of the keys is, for lack of a better phrase, to give each other space?
Curtis: There’s a lot of space in our marriage. When we first got married, we were reading William Safire’s "On Language" column in the New York Times, and he mentioned that a syzygy is a pair of opposites. We named our company Syzygy Industries, because Chris and I are that in every way. And it has been challenging to find common ground. It’s not been great all the time. It has been an almost-22-year untangling. Me untangling myself and him going, "Hey, wait a minute! Who are you now?" He has had to learn who I really am. And it’s maybe not the woman that I pretended to be. He’s had his mind blown that I read Us magazine, you know what I mean? Because for years, I would only walk around with The Nation in my hand. But we’ve navigated it. In that has been the hope, because I can always reach out and there he is. And he can always reach out and there I am. And because we’ve untangled a lot of the knots, there’s also been some real appreciation on both our parts for who that other person is becoming, is daring to be.
Curtis on Finding Her Own Voice
Wallace: What else have you untangled?
Curtis: Well, at one point, I hung out with really smart lefty people and the next thing you know, I was this lefty girl. But you know what? I don’t know where I stand on abortion. I know I don’t believe that the state has any right on any level to decide what happens in a woman’s body. But I am the mother of two adopted children. My life has been immeasurably changed by being a mother to these two kids. And I wouldn’t be a mother if someone had aborted those two kids. So it’s complicated. For years, whatever my friends said, I said, that’s what I believe too. But I actually have a very personal, emotional, opinion about it.
Wallace: You’re on a roll. Keep going.
Curtis: Okay. Hang me out to dry, but I’m a big believer that all kids should wear uniforms. Kids get in a lot of trouble with clothing, status symbols, the demarcation lines that make people feel less than, more than. I think it should be based on a lot of other factors and not on what you wear. Now, that’s an unpopular point of view for liberals. They want everyone to be "free to be you and me" all the time. I want them to express themselves. I just don’t want that horrible demarcation line that happens in life to happen earlier than it should.
Curtis on Self-Esteem
Wallace: Again, it’s about self-esteem. Back in 2002, you told me that you hoped that someday soon, you’d feel sure enough of yourself to "look like just me. There is a me that I will get to that will say to the editors of magazines, ‘This is what I wear, this is how I wear my hair.’ . . . I’m going to look the way God intended me to look — with a little help from Manolo Blahnik." When I saw your beautiful silver hair today, I wondered: Are you there yet?
Curtis: I’m almost there. I virtually never have to put on other people’s clothes anymore. [She looks down at her feet. Instead of Manolo Blahniks, there are flip-flops. She laughs.] I’m wearing Reef flip-flops with orthotics in them. That’s how pathetic I am! But I feel much more authentic. I’m not saying I’m a spiritually perfect person. I’m flawed and contradictory and fraught in many areas. But I’m better. I’m growing, and that’s all I really want.
Wallace: On the jacket of your first book, you described yourself as "a mother, wife, daughter, actress, director, equal opportunity employer, inventor, friend, and now, an author." The author’s biography for the third book called you "a moody actor." The fourth book said, "Jamie Lee Curtis moonlights as an actor, photographer, and closet organizer." How is this book going to describe you?
Curtis: Maybe I have to write it right now. It will say: "Jamie Lee Curtis is a card-carrying member of the human race and proud of it. She is also proud to be the mother of Annie and Tom and the wife of Chris and friend to many." That’ll probably do it.
Originally published in MORE magazine, September 2006.